The School of Hard Knocks

We can learn by being taught and we can learn from experience, and as we age we see that there are things we wish we'd been told, things that we learned the hard way. This Sunday, as we celebrate Father's Day, Rev. Peter reflects on the things he wished his father (or others) had taught him. 

Sermon: "The School of Hard Knocks"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs

If I believed in such things, I would say that my father-in-law, Dan Fitzpatrick, is looking down and laughing at me right now. He would find it at least entertaining if not completely ridiculous that I, with all my fancy degrees, would be standing before you complaining about having to learn things “the hard way.” You see, Dan Fitzpatrick was a true graduate of the school of hard knocks, and compared to him, I’m a total fraud. Dan started working in a power generating plant when he was in high school, shoveling coal into the boilers. Then he enlisted in the army and worked as an airplane mechanic in the Pacific during World War II. Upon returning from the war, he married his high school sweetheart and went back to work at the power plant for another 45 years, eventually working his way up to maintenance director. I’m convinced that, had he had the opportunity, my father-in-law could have been a brain surgeon or a concert violinist, or pretty much anything he put his mind to. But he didn’t have those opportunities – the opportunities I’ve been blessed with. He learned with his hands and with his heart, which was one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever known. He never resented his missed opportunities, and, in fact, he was proud of his graduate-level degree from the school of hard knocks. So, compared to Dan Fitzpatrick, I’m a mere poser.

And yet, having lived for 62-plus years on this planet, there are things I’ve had to learn the hard way. All of us, I think, need to touch the metaphorical hot stove now and then. We can’t learn all our lessons in the classroom, nor can we live our lives fully without taking risks and suffering the consequences. That having been said, as a parent and, now, a grandparent, our impulse is to protect our children and grandchildren from having to learn things the hard way. Maybe it’s part of the evolutionary process, but I would much prefer my grandsons to be twice shy without having to be once burned. There is wisdom that I wish my parents or grandparents had imparted to me but didn’t, so I had to learn some things the hard way. Now, to be kind and to be fair and honest, they probably tried to teach me and I just didn’t listen, so I don’t fault them at all. But on this Father’s Day I’ve been thinking about some of those things that I wish I’d been told or taught by my father, or my grandfather. Things that I learned the hard way and that I intend to share with my  own grandsons when they’re old enough to listen, and, hopefully, not too old to ignore. I thought I’d share a few of them with you today.

The first “words of wisdom” I would impart are these: “Always check your blind spots.” You know what blinds spots are, right? When you’re sitting in the driver’s seat of a car, looking forward, you can glance in the mirrors and see behind you. You can look in the driver’s side mirror and see the lane to the left of you. You can look in the rearview mirror and see what’s directly behind you. You can look in the passenger side mirror and see what’s on that side of you. And it seems like you can see everything that’s going on around you. But the reality is that there are parts of the road that you can’t see. And many of us know from experience that an entire car and even a good-sized truck can hide in one of your blind spots. That’s why, whenever we’re driving and we want to change lanes, before we do we have to check our blind spots. If we don’t turn our head and look around us, we could veer into the next lane, right into a car we never knew was there.

Now, you might be wondering why I’m wasting all this time on a driving lesson. After all, most cars these days have blind spot detectors. But here’s the thing: When I say that we’ve always got to check our blind spots, I’m not talking about just when we’re driving a car. Blind spots are the things we can’t quite see, even when we’re sure we’ve got the full picture. Especially when we’re sure we’ve got the full picture. We each grow up with our own experiences, and those experiences color our perception of the world. They make us see things in a certain way. And if you think about it, that means that every one of us on this planet will see the same thing differently. And often times we’ll make the mistake of believing that the way we see things is the right way, or even the only way. And if we don’t realize that there are other ways of seeing things, we’ll go ahead and do something – take some action – that could put us right into the path the proverbial oncoming truck.

The blind spots when we’re driving are easy to find, because they’re always in the same place. We can train ourselves to check them, and we can make a habit of checking them, so that it’s almost automatic. And that will help keep us safe. But checking our other blind spots isn’t so easy. Because they’re harder to find. And the place where we’ll usually find them is in the times that we’re most certain we don’t have them. Like when we’re absolutely sure of something. Or we’re about to make a decision completely on our own, without asking anyone else’s opinion. You see, just like when we’re looking in the mirrors driving a car, none of us has the full, complete picture. We may think we do, but we don’t. We can miss something that’s right over our shoulder that’s as big as a truck if we don’t check our blind spots. So, just like when we’re driving, whenever we’re going to make a decision, a choice, or a change, we’ve got to be sure to check our blind spots.

The second piece of wisdom I’d offer is this: “Plant Trees.” I once knew a family where the dad was in the Army for most of his life. This meant that, every two years or so, the family would have to pack up everything they owned and move somewhere, sometimes half-way around the world. But no matter where they went, no matter that they knew they weren’t going to be staying there for long, the mom always planted a garden. And it wasn’t just a garden with vegetables and flowers. She would plant perennials and bulbs and shrubs, plants that would multiply and grow, year after year. Sometimes it wasn’t until long after the family had packed up and moved away that her gardens would flower and flourish.

There are lots of reasons that we should plant trees. First, they’re good for the planet. No tree ever harmed the environment. Trees add beauty to the landscape, and the world can always use more beauty. They also usually live for a long time, so their benefits last and last. We might not be able to hang a tire swing from the branch of a tree that we plant, but we also couldn’t have our tire swing if someone a long time ago hadn’t planted the tree that holds it now. So, in some ways, planting trees is a way of saying “thank you” to those who planted the trees before we showed up. It’s a way to “pay it forward.”

And, of course, when I say “plant trees” I’m not just talking about physically putting saplings in the ground. When I say to “plant trees” I’m saying that it’s good to put down roots. Our own roots. No matter where we are and no matter how briefly we might think we’re going to be there. It’s important to become part of the place we’re at. To be grounded there. Even if, like I did when I was younger, we have a restless spirit and we think to ourselves “I’m not gonna be here long.” It’s good to make some solid connections. With our neighbors. With our local fire house. With a church community. Wherever we can, it’s important to become part of something greater than ourselves. It might make it harder to leave when we have to go, but it also might make it easier to stay a little longer. And, you never know: The trees that we plant while we’re there just might bear fruit long after we’re gone.

Another tidbit I’d offer my grandsons is this: “Sing in the chorus…and, every once in a while, try out for a solo.” There is nothing like being part of a team. The sense of belonging. Of all pulling together for a common goal. Of supporting each other and being supported by our teammates. Of knowing that we’re part of something bigger than just ourself, being a cog in a well-oiled machine. It doesn’t matter whether it involves music, sports, or scientific research. Any team will do.

When I was in high school, I played on the soccer team. I played right wing (which, nowadays, would be called an “outside striker,” I guess). I wasn’t great, but I was good. I wasn’t fast, but I was fast enough. I wasn’t a superstar, but I wasn’t a slacker, either. I pretty much played a “supporting role” on the team. I was a member of the “chorus,” not a soloist. My job was to take the ball up the right side of the field and to pass it into the middle for one of my teammates to shoot. Every year, I had lots of “assists” and a couple of goals. It was a satisfying role to play. I knew my part in the chorus, and I did it pretty well.

Now, a classmate of mine, Gary Williams, played left wing. Exactly the same position as me, but on the other side of the field. Gary was a quick and crafty player. He did what I did, running down the sideline and passing the ball in toward the center, so he had plenty of assists, just like me. But he also scored a lot of goals. I couldn’t figure out how he did it, until one day I noticed that he wasn’t just running down the sideline like he was “supposed” to. He didn’t always pass it off to a teammate. Sometimes he would dribble the ball directly toward the goal. When he had the chance, he left his assigned, supporting role and tried to be the soloist, the star. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes our coach would yell at him to play his position and other times we’d all be celebrating one of his many scores.

The lesson I learned from Gary is that being a team player is important, but sometimes we’ve just got to take the ball to the goal. We can spend our whole life out on the wing, feeding the ball to others, giving them the chances to shine and to score, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes it’s good to break for the goal ourselves. It’s risky, no doubt. We leave our own position uncovered. We won’t always score. Sometimes our teammates will get mad at us for “hogging” the ball. But every so often, we actually will put one into the net. And that’s a great feeling.

We can’t all be superstars. We can’t all be soloists. And it’s good to play supporting roles. They’re an important and necessary part of every team, from the playing field to the stage to the workplace. But every once in a while, it’s good to try for the spotlight. To take a chance and put yourself out there. To step out of the wings and onto center stage. When you see an opening, don’t be afraid to take it. You might fall flat on your face, but you just might score the game-winning goal.

So, there you’ve got three life lessons that I’ve learned by doing, learned the hard way: Always check your blind spots; Plant trees; and Sing in the chorus, but now and again, try out for a solo. I’ve got a bunch more, and I’m sure you’ve got plenty of your own, too. The truth is that we’re all perpetual students in the school of hard knocks. Some of us are at the elementary level and others of us have several advanced degrees. The other truth, and it’s a hard one to accept, is that, no matter how we try as fathers, as grandfathers, as parents, as teachers and mentors, as role models in whatever capacity and in whatever relationship, many, if not most so-called “words of wisdom” fall on deaf ears of the young. The best we can do is to try and protect the ones we love from getting hurt too badly when they get knocked down, and to be there to help them dust themselves off and get back up when they do.

Happy Father’s Day. This day, and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.